09/25/2015, 00.00
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Pope express closeness to Muslims in wake of Mecca tragedy

Before beginning the celebration of Vespers with the clergy of New York, speaking in Spanish Francis said his thoughts turn to the victims of the disaster in the holy place of Islam. Saudi King: "We need to review the organization of pilgrimages." Ayatollah Khamenei: "Riyadh accept the huge responsibility of this disaster." Criticism from the Islamic world and pilgrims.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) - Closeness to "Muslim brothers" following "the tragedy that befell your people in Mecca. We beseech God Almighty, merciful Father, for the rest of the victims”, commented  Pope Francis, in Spanish, last night before starting the celebration of Vespers with the clergy of New York. The pope, referring to the terrible disaster which took place yesterday in one of the most holy places of Islam, also said he was "sorry" that it coincided with the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca.

The incident was caused by an excessive influx of pilgrims in Mina, the tent city less than five kilometers from Mecca set up to accommodate the millions of faithful involved in the annual celebrations.

The official death toll is 717, but rescuers say they need more time for a true total estimate; there are 863wounded, although the number is expected to rise. It was the worst disaster in the last 25 years in an area sadly known for fatal accidents. These are often caused by the huge number of people gathered in places unsuitable to accommodate them.

The Saudi Arabian king, Salman, has ordered a "review of security plans" linked to the pilgrimage. According to the monarch “we need to improve the organization and management of the movement of pilgrims". The health minister also said yesterday that the  pilgrims are to blame for the disaster, because they moved without respecting the instructions.

The Muslim world has instead harshly criticized Saudi management of the pilgrimage. The Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked for 95 countrymen who died in the disaster and added: "The local government has to accept the huge responsibility of this tragedy. The mismanagement and improper actions of the authorities must be condemned. " The victims also include 18 Turks. The Director of Religious Affairs in Ankara has pointed the finger at "serious questions" into the holy city.

Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of Heritage Research Foundation based in Mecca, adds: "They tried to improve the facilities, but always at the expense of the health and safety of pilgrims. The projects which have changed the city are sweeping away the ties with the Prophet, and the lack of crowd control and management by the authorities. "

This opinion is common among pilgrims. A Muslim from Sudan says: " I have come here for the Hajj for four years now, and this is the worst organized. People were dehydrated and agitated, even some Saudi friends told me that something would happen." Abu Salim, from Tunisia, concludes: "We paid 4 thousand dollars to be here and  the transport is very bad, the residences are very bad and the food is really bad."

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